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One of my best meal planning ideas and secrets is this: once you’ve created a meal plan for the week – what I call a menu – use it again!
I can safely assume that you’ve probably never reused a meal plan you created. Why? Because I’ve talked to a lot of people about it and they’ve never done it before, either. Heck, I never did it until a few years ago.
But it makes total sense to create a reusable meal plan. It’s a genius meal planning idea, if I do say so myself. Why do we make menus and shopping lists each week, only to throw them away when we’re finished? Then we start all over again the next week, doing the same thing.
If you make enough menus, you’ll have a large selection that you can rotate and not get bored. If you want to learn just how to create reusable menus and shopping lists, check out the Meal Planning Secrets guide.
What are you going to make?
Well, that is totally up to you. I purposefully didn’t focus on telling you what to make because there are so many preferences, intolerances, allergies and opinions. I’m not a doctor or a nutritionist, or an expert on anything related to what you should or shouldn’t eat. My goal here is to help you plan your meals. I’m not here to argue the merits of one diet over another. There’s a lot of information out there, and much of it’s free, so it’s up to you to decide what works for you. Figuring out what to make is an incredibly personal choice.
Building a collection of recipes that my family likes to eat (for the most part) has taken a long time (and isn’t finished yet). My husband and son are picky eaters. My daughter has food allergies. I want something relatively healthy. Oh, did I mention that it needs to be simple? Like super duper extra simple because cooking is not high on my skill set? I’ve made a lot of recipes that flopped, but I’ve also found some really good ones. (I’ve included links to some of our family’s favorite recipes on my Favorites page.)
Even if your recipes are family favorites, there might be nights that nobody wants to eat them. It’s frustrating to think you’re cooking a slam dunk only to hear nothing but complaints at the table. Don’t let it discourage you. We did it to my mom, and now my kids are doing it to me. Payback’s a you-know-what.
If you already have a big selection of recipes, it’ll be easier for you to create your weekly menus. But if you need more options, don’t worry because I have some tips and tricks up my sleeve for choosing recipes and gathering meal planning ideas. Keep reading below!
Don’t pick complicated recipes!
The best recipes are the ones you’ll actually make and eat. When you’re looking for a new recipe, take a good hard look at the ingredient list and the instructions. If there are a lot of ingredients or some hard-to-find ones, that might not be a recipe for you. Also look for simple, quick steps. Some chopping is fine, but you’re probably not going to carve a turkey on a weeknight. Remember when I talked earlier in the guide about setting realistic expectations? Make sure you understand your abilities in the kitchen and choose recipes accordingly.
You can also save yourself some time by using pre-cut or pre-bagged vegetables. Yes, these options are not as fresh or as cheap as picking and cutting them yourself, but if it’s the difference between you making a healthy dish at home or picking up a burger, buy the dang pre-bagged veggies.
Cleanup = the worst part of cooking (in my humble opinion, especially since our dishwasher is broken right now). Recipes are not just about prep and cooking time. That’s why you will find many recipes for one-pan or one-pot dinners for easy cleanup. I love the Instant Pot because you can saute onions and garlic and then cook meat in the same pot.
Need even more help choosing recipes and finding meal planning ideas? If you sign up for my e-mail list to receive my free weekly meal planning template, over the course of a few days, you’ll also receive a few additional freebies from me, including something I call The Recipe Designer. This document helps you create your search terms before looking for recipes on Google or Pinterest so you can narrow down the many, many, many recipes on the interweb.
Build A Meal Ideas List One Meal At A Time
If you’re still building your list of recipes and food options, I recommend starting with one meal first. Don’t try to overhaul everything all at once. For example, consider eating the same few things for breakfast, lunch, and snacks while you work on gathering more dinner recipes.
Finding What to Make
You may already have a list of favorite meals to choose from or perhaps you’re starting from fresh from a clean slate. Below are some meal planning ideas about where to find what to make.
1. Google it! When I’m looking for something new, Google is my BFF. (Actually Google’s pretty much always my BFF. We go way back.) Just type what you’re looking for into the search bar, like “easy slow cooker recipes,” which is my favorite search term.
2. Try a new recipe from a favorite food blog. When I really got serious about setting up a meal planning system, I already had a few recipes that I had tried from various food blogs. Once I found one recipe that we liked, I made others from the same blog. Chances are if one worked, others will, too. Three of my favorite food bloggers are The Real Food Dietitians, Cookie + Kate, and A Pinch of Yum.
3. Scroll through Instagram and Pinterest. Food pictures are some of the best pictures. See something you like? Head to the blog for the recipe!
4. Ask your friends and family. We look to strangers on the Internet for pretty much everything, but we often don’t ask the people closest to us. If you can’t cook, I wouldn’t ask your friend who went to culinary school for her Beef Wellington recipe. But your frazzled friend with the oft-used slow cooker? She might have the perfect recipes for you! (Or me! Please share!)
5. Flip through cookbooks. If you don’t have any, head to the library or the bookstore. Grab a coffee and peruse the shelves. Just be careful not to spill on the books. (Once a librarian’s daughter, always a librarian’s daughter.)
6. Re-use recipes from a meal subscription service. If you’ve tried a meal subscription service in the past and have saved the recipe cards, simply re-use one that you liked.
7. Use a meal planning app that provides recipes.These apps can be a great resource for finding recipes, but I don’t recommend relying on them to plan your whole week.
Make sure you have a backup plan, too. I keep tortillas and shredded cheese on hand for quesadillas just in case. Sometimes we have boxed mac and cheese and sliced cucumbers. Guess what? My kids are still alive.
Now I want you to pay close attention to what I’m about to say: You don’t have to cook every night of the week! I never do. There also will be days when dinner just doesn’t work out as planned. Maybe you get caught up at work or the kids have a school event they didn’t tell you about (I totally did this to my parents). Keep something in the freezer that you can easily heat up or eat a simple salad with a protein on top. Plan for leftovers, pick up takeout, or have cooked meals delivered to your door. Or even – GASP! – go out to dinner. The occasional unplanned meal out is totally fine.